Remembering Redd Foxx
Watching Redd Foxx and Della Reese trade intricately ribald quips on CBS’ new series The Royal Family (She: ”Now, don’t let your mouth write a check your butt can’t cash”; He: ”Baby, this butt ain’t gonna bounce”), it was easy to forget that Foxx wasn’t always this gnarled old foxy-grandpa type who first came to prominence in Sanford and Son (1972-77).
Foxx, who died of a heart attack on Oct. 11 at the age of 68, spent the ’50s and ’60s as a fixture of African-American pop culture for his raunchy nightclub routines. Standing onstage with his big shoulders thrown back, his eyes narrowed to sly slits, puffing on an ever-present cigarette and speaking in a muzzy growl, Foxx talked about the war between the sexes with a deft explicitness that mixed burlesque exaggeration with a hipster’s cool.
In 1955, he released a comedy album, Laff of the Party, that launched the genre of so-called ”party records” — wicked humor collections that earned him an underground reputation. Hip, urbane, dirty, and subversive, he was a role model for Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy (co-executive producer of Royal). Malcolm X, who once worked with the stand-up comic in a Harlem restaurant’s kitchen, called Foxx ”the funniest dishwasher on this earth.”
Hugh Downs, of all people, gave the comedian his first TV break on the Today show in 1964, but it was always assumed that Foxx’s material was both too ”black” and too ”blue” for mass-culture consumption. In 1970, though, Foxx played a grumpy junk dealer in the movie Cotton Comes to Harlem; TV producer Bud Yorkin saw it and cast him as a similar character in Sanford and Son (the comic’s real name was John Sanford). Foxx, playing a character older than he actually was, turned his nightclub aggressiveness into curmudgeonly charm.
In recent years, Foxx’s greatest fame came primarily from skirmishes with the IRS, which seized much of his property in payment for back taxes. But with The Royal Family, it looked as if he’d worked out a satisfying variation on his Sanford role and was on the verge of newfound success.
It was Foxx’s final comic irony that, when he suffered his fatal heart attack during a Royal Family rehearsal in Los Angeles, some at first assumed he was kidding, that he was invoking a trademark bit from Sanford and Son. You remember: Caught in a lie, devious old Fred would put a hand to his heart, wobble on his feet, gaze heavenward, and the junk man would address his long- departed wife: ”I’m comin’ to join you, Elizabeth, I’m comin’!”
Elizabeth, if that growly voice seems a little louder, a little closer, than usual, it is: He has arrived.